An Attitude of Gratitude (Revisited)

        

Psalm 100 (from the Inclusive Psalms)

Acclaim our God with Joy, all the earth. Serve our God with Gladness! Enter into God’s presence with joyful song. Know that Adonai is God! Our God made us, and we belong to the Creator; We are God’s people and the sheep of God’s pasture. Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and the courts with praise. Give Thanks to God! Bless God’s Name! For our God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, And God’s faithfulness to all generations.  

An Attitude of Gratitude (Revisited)

I remember the first time I shared a message called An Attitude of Gratitude. It was in Scales Mound Illinois, many, many winters ago, when I was still an undergraduate student and serving as a licensed pastor in a small, rural congregation. I remember it so clearly, because it was only the second time we had gathered for worship post-911. The week before, and the week leading up to that Sunday, were fraught with fear, raw emotion, conspiracy theories, and perhaps most troubling, words of hate and blame toward our Muslim neighbors.

Now, I wish I had a copy or could recall the message in its entirety, but I don’t and I cannot. But do remember two things. First, the overwhelmingly positive response to a message about gratitude, patients, and love defeating hate during such difficult times. And second, I remember I shared a quote from the famous mystic Meister Eckhart. Eckhart said of gratitude, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Interesting. He’s saying in essence that the very heart of prayer, the core of our relationship with the divine, is gratitude. If our only prayer is “thank you,” that’s enough. Eckhart goes on to elaborate, “…acknowledging the good that you already have in your life,” he said, “is the foundation for all abundance.”[i]

Now, I share this experience today because I think we, as a people and as a nation, find ourselves once again mired in fear and angst. And who can blame us? This second-wave of the pandemic continues to rage out-of-control. It’s isolating us, it’s infecting us and killing too many of our neighbors. It’s cancelling or altering our holiday traditions and there’s no real end in sight. People are just getting tired of it. And if that’s not enough, elected officials at the very highest levels of our government are refusing to accept the clear and legal results of our election threating the very core of our democracy. And of course, there’s still poverty and hunger and homelessness, there’s the existential threat of global climate change, and there continues to be racism and inequality across our nation. So, yes, there are plenty of things of worry about.

But here’s the thing. Thanksgiving is more than just turkey and football and anticipating Black Friday deals. Thanksgiving is even more than pilgrims and feasts. Thanksgiving is about taking stock of our lives and then showing our gratitude to God for our blessings. Thanksgiving is about renewing, reestablishing, “revisiting” an attitude of gratitude each year. “If the only prayer we say is, ‘thank you,’ that will suffice.”

But what if things aren’t so great? What if 2020 has kicked my butt and I just don’t feel like I have any gratitude left in me? Well, I came across an ancient saying from Buddhism this past week that might help us shed a little light in the dark places of 2020. The Buddha said, “…rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”[ii]

This wisdom is a stark reminder of the serious-ness of our times. We all know someone, an acquaintance, a friend, or God forbid, a family member, who has died from this disease. That’s the reality of our times. But we also know, we also know deep within our being, that we do not tread these troubled water alone. God is with us! God is present in our relationships and in our interactions with each other. God is present in our religious traditions, although they may look a little different this year. God is present out there in the natural world, calling to us upon the breath of the wind and with the lapping of each wave and in the gentle rustle of the trees. And God is present within us, within our very being; in our thoughts, our reasoning, our consciousness. And for all of these places where God is revealed, we can be truly thankful.

You see, the blessing here is that even in our isolation, even when there’s civil unrest, even while injustice still exists and hatred boils just under the surface; we don’t face this world alone. We have each other and we have God. That’s the essence of faith. A faith that carried our forbearers through difficult times and it’s the very same faith that has the potential to carry us through as well.

Now, the Psalmist understood this. In Psalm 100 the author says things like, Acclaim our God with Joy, all the earth,” “Serve our God with Gladness,” “Enter into God’s presence with joyful song,” and “Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving.” And we know that life was no picnic in his day. We know this because these “Psalms of Assent” we see in the 100’s are bracketed by “Psalms of Lament.” Laments, crying out to God for liberation from the trying times that they were experiencing; times of civil unrest, injustice, and disease. Sound familiar to anyone?

So, here’s the challenge from today’s text. Even amid all the changes to our traditions, even with all of the worries of our times, we are challenged to adopt an attitude of gratitude. We are called to be the church, the church isn’t a building, but rather a people. We are called to be a people of hope, a people of faith, a people of justice, we are called my friends, to be a grateful people, thanking God for all of our blessings. May it be so. Amen.


[i] Matthew Fox Meditations with Meister Eckhart (Inner Traditions Bear and Co.) 1983

[ii] A Saying from Traditional Buddhist Wisdom

A Shiny New Coin

Parable of the Valuable Coins

Matthew 25:14-30 Common English

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

“After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’ “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’ “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’ “His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. Now take the worthless servant and throw him out into the farthest darkness.’ “People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.

A Shiny New Coin

William Faulkner once wrote, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” These words ring true for us today as we approach this timeless parable in a new way.

The proverbial shore here is the traditional way of understanding today’s parable. It holds that we’re called, as people of faith, to use our individual coins or “talents” for the good of all people. A great way to view this text. I have taught it that way many times as have many of my friends. This is also the way most Bible commentaries explain the Parable of the Talents. So, let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with viewing this text through the lens of servanthood. But, at the same time, there’s some more going on here. But in order to get-at that “something,” we must first look at the parable itself.

Okay. In this parable the first servant turned his five valuable coins (called talents) into ten, the second turned his in to four, but the third hid his talent in the ground so that he would not lose it. Common wisdom says that we’re to be like the first servant, or at least, like the second one, but we should avoid at all costs being like the lazy, unprofitable third servant. And again, this isn’t a bad way to look at it. But that being said, I also believe that our common interpretation of the Parable of the Talents is completely opposite of what Jesus really meant. Let me explain…

Over the past twenty years or so, I have read, written, and taught a lot about the cultural and historical backgrounds of various Biblical texts. Context is my favorite word! And because of this attention to context, I have come to see that the cultural lens through which we read Scripture is completely foreign to the cultural lens in which Scripture was originally written or read.

Therefore, if we really want to understand the meaning and significance of what was written, we need to understand the cultural background of the people who wrote it and originally read it.

What do I mean by that? Well, we live in a materialistically-driven culture, governed by greed and the accumulation of wealth. That should come as no surprise to anyone. The Bible however, was written in an honor/shame culture. A culture where stuff and money didn’t matter nearly as much. You see, in this kind of culture, people desire honor above all else. Money is not an end, but a means to an end. In such a culture, someone might be insanely rich, but if they had no honor, they were not well-liked or respected.

Furthermore, since wealth and possessions were in limited supply, honor/shame cultures believed in a zero-sum economy. In other words, if one person gained wealth, it was necessarily at someone else’s expense. And this is important to understand as we look at our text. It’s important because the only way someone could accumulate wealth (gain more talents) was by taking it from someone else. The rich got richer at the expense of the poor. This is why ancient cultures such as this had so many “patrons.” As the rich accumulated more and more wealth, they saw it as their duty and responsibility to give back to society in the form of humanitarian works, giving alms to the poor, caring of widows and orphans, and so forth.  This way, the wealthy gained greater honor, but not necessarily greater wealth. [i]

Okay, let’s look at our parable once again through this cultural lens.

In our economically-driven culture, the heroes here are the servants who accumulate more wealth. But in an honor-based culture, the people who accumulate more wealth are the villains. Why? Because the only way they were able to get more was by taking it from someone else (i.e. the poor) So, the hero of the story is really the third servant, the one who did not become richer, but instead was content with what he was given. The master, however, gets mad at this third servant and tries to shame him by taking away (literally “stealing” is the word in Greek) the third one’s possessions and giving it to the one who is already rich.

Now, I know this is a challenging way of reading the Parable of the Talents, because we’re typically taught that the master represents God, and that each of us must give an account to God for how we used the time and money with which we were blessed. Obviously, in this alternate way of reading the Parable of the Talents, since the master behaves shamefully and teaches his servants to do the same, the master cannot represent God.[ii] I mean, when Jesus said, …those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them” …he wasn’t advocating for an upward redistribution of wealth. Instead, he’s criticizing the wealthy who haven’t taken care of the poor as Scripture commanded them. The master in this story isn’t God, but rather, the ones whom Jesus is taking to task.  

So, what does all this mean to us? Well, first of all, we don’t have to cast aside the idea of using our God-given talents for the benefit of humanity and all of creation. This is a twenty-first century, culturally defined way of viewing our text. This “servanthood” interpretation is an important aspect of our faith journey. But the original context is important for us to understand as well. I call this the “justice” interpretation.

In the justice interpretation we are invited to do more than simply use our talents, we are to share our resources as well. Like the patrons of old, we have been blessed with an abundance. Jesus is challenging us, both individually and collectively, to envision a society where everyone has access to the basic necessities and the opportunity to prosper. We are called to create a place where justice and equality and peace become more than mere ideals, but instead become living, breathing norms.

And this is vital for each of us to understand because over the course of the past eight months or so, we’ve found ourselves in the midst of “norm” building. What do I mean by that? Well, we’ve all heard the term “a new normal” in conjunction with this pandemic. But rather than lament the reality of these difficult days, maybe we should invest ourselves, our souls, into creating a culture where racial equality, kind words, and just actions become the norm. Maybe our new normal doesn’t have to be defined by disease, disunity, or death. These are the realities of our time, but we can choose to shine the light of justice in the coming days, months, and years by sharing our God-given talents and by participating in a downward, and ever-expanding, distribution of wealth.

So, as we continue to move in that direction, as we swim for Falkner’s new horizon, may we have courage to lose sight of the shore. May we, finally, turn our gaze in the direction of a just world for all people and the preservation of all creation. May it be so.   


[i] Jeremy Myers The Parable of the Talents Revisited (www.redeeminggod.com)2008

[ii] Ibid. Myers.

In The Aftermath

Hear the words of Paul as he challenges his followers, and us, to become imitators of Christ.

“Therefore,” he writes, “if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:1-5)

Today’s Message: Humility in the Aftermath

I think it’s safe to say that most pastors look forward to the end of an election cycle. No matter which side of the fence we’re on, there are always opposing views within our congregations, and, as you all know, there are a myriad of strong opinions and emotions as election day approaches. I’ve seen churches actually split and I’ve seen clergy move on because of political differences. And I’ve always thought it a shame. It’s a shame because in the end, both sides miss an opportunity to understand their fellow believer on a deeper level.

Paul understood this. In today’s passage, we hear Paul speaking to the fledgling church in Philippi from his prison cell. He was speaking to them in the form of an epistle, or a letter, which was in response to a previous letter he had received from the church asking him to solve a problem or multiple problems for them. This is the only form of communication that we have from Paul. It’s kind of like we’re listening in on one side of a telephone conversation. We don’t actually have a copy of the letter that came to Paul, but we can surmise what the problems within the community were based upon his answer.

Now, contextually, this was one of the final letters if not the very last letter Paul ever wrote. You see, he was nearing the end of his life and I believe he knew it. Now, let’s pause here for a moment and think about this. If someone like Paul, a faithful teacher and apostle, knew he was nearing the end, wouldn’t he have saved his best for last? Or at the very least, would he have not winnowed his theology down to what was most important?

So, if this is in fact the case, what was most important? Well, in Philippians Paul emphasizes things like keeping one’s priorities straight, living ethically, and what he called “standing firm” even in the face of adversity. Okay. So far so good. But the foundation of this letter, the centeral theme if you will, is the idea of imitation. Near the end of chapter 3 Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way – you can use us as models.” (3:17) Which, as you’ve probably already figured out, brings us to our passage for today.

Now, first of all, I think this passage and especially this idea of imitating Christ is centeral to Paul’s theology and it’s vital for each of us to consider as we begin the long, slow process of healing the soul of this nation in the aftermath of the election.

Why? Well, consider Paul plea.  …if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, by having the same love, and being united, and by agreeing with each other. 

Oh my goodness! Do we ever need to hear these words today. Paul is saying that if we could find any encouragement, or at least some semblance of comfort in love at all; if there’s at least a little bit of  sharing or any sympathy present in our lives or in the world, then joy will be complete.

Now, any is the key word here. Any is an indefinite pronoun and the word in Greek that’s used here is ti. But ti can also be used as an interrogative pronoun (who, when, where, etc.) Now, I think it’s imperative that we don’t let these multiple understanding of this tiny word get lost in translation. Paul is saying something even more profound than simply “is there any encouragement or comfort or sympathy left.” In essence, he’s saying who among you can infuse joy into the world by demonstrating encouragement in Christ, by bringing comfort to others in love, by sharing in the spirit, or by being empathetic toward the plight of all people.

And how do we do that? How do we “complete joy”? Well, Paul says, “…by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other.

With this election over, my hope and my prayer is that we can unite, forgive, and extend grace to those on the other side of the fence, because finally, each of us, no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, stand in need of grace, forgiveness, and love.

These words ring so true as we face the overwhelming obstacles that lay before us as a nation and as a people. We’re facing a pandemic that continues to rage out-of-control. We’re living in a shattered economy. We’re ALL affected by racism. All of us. When one of God’s children is demeaned or oppressed, or made to feel “less-than” – we’re all demeaned and oppressed; and when racism happens, whether explicit or systemic, all of our joy is “less-than” complete.  

Paul goes on to say, “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”

What a profound statement! With humility think of others as better than yourself. We’re in this mess because of hubris, the opposite of humility. We’re in this mess because we refused, as a people, to humble ourselves and put the needs of the other before our own.

We’re in this mess because we allowed ourselves to be divided, to be separated by ideology or race or party affiliation. Jesus once said that a house divided cannot stand. And he was right! I know he was right because we’re living with the consequences of being a divided nation each and every day.

But, here’s the Good News! We can find our way out of this mess. We can and we will if we walk hand in hand and work side by side, male and female, young and old, liberal and conservative, Democrat Republican and Independent, black and white and brown and every shade in-between. No matter what our religion or ethnicity or social status we must come together if our joy will ever, even come close, to becoming complete.

My friends, I invite you to take these words of Paul into your heart, process them in your mind, and live them out with your voice, and your hands and your feet, as we seek to be imitators of Christ’s kindness, and grace, and love beyond ourselves, and as we attempt to create a more just, and kind, and peace-filled world for all of us.

May it be so,

Amen & Amen